Idol Top 9
Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

Continuing our exclusive series, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland sat down with EW to discuss Wednesday night’s Top 9 performance show. For a decade, Byrd and Orland have been on the front lines with the contestants, from Hollywood Week to the grand finale in May. The two work with the contestants on their respective songs, helping them shine on the Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. Click through to read their take on this week’s “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” show, including why Jacob initially selected Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” only to then switch songs, what trait Stefano shares with Carrie Underwood, and how Orland got Lauren to hit those mighty Aretha Franklin notes.

JACOB LUSK — “Man in the Mirror” (Michael Jackson)

DB: You saw him with Jimmy Iovine and, and he chose [Marvin Gaye’s] “Let’s Get It On.” He walked away from there and came to [associate music director] Matt Rohde and I and said, “I’m going to sing ‘Let’s Get It On,’ and I don’t think I want to do that song.” He felt that he couldn’t pull it off because it was so overtly sexual. He even went so far as to say, “You know I write love songs.” And he quoted one of his own lyrics, and it was a little more artsy and flowery.

When you go against two music icons — and Jimmy Iovine — those are forces to be reckoned with. What I hear a lot is “I don’t want to be disrespectful,” and they all say it. And [changing songs] was agony for him. He didn’t want to be disrespectful, but he wanted to be true to himself.

He was also very excited to have [the song’s co-writer] Siedah Garrett on stage with him. That added an extra element — that he could walk over and sing a portion of this song with her. Siedah delayed her flight to Malaysia to do Idol. It was an extremely expensive ticket to change, because she was doing a corporate gig in Malaysia. But she wouldn’t miss this opportunity to save her life.

HALEY REINHART — “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin cover of Erma Franklin)

DB: She wanted to do another song, but it wasn’t eligible. So we went for a song that was close to it, and that became “Piece of My Heart.” She said, “Well, they said they want to hear Joplin, I’ll give them that.” It happened with Ashthon Jones, when they said, “You’re like Diana Ross,” so she sang Diana Ross. It happens because [the singers] don’t want to be disrespectful. It really is that simple.

CASEY ABRAMS — “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

MO: Every Friday, [executive producers] Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe and I sit in a room, and every contestant comes in and goes through their two to five choices that they want to sing. I’m happy Casey changed his song. He knew he wanted to do something with his bass, and he just wasn’t feeling it [with The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”]. He changed it right away. Somebody mentioned “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and I started playing it [on the piano], and Casey was like, “Oh my God, this is it!” He knew immediately.

One of my favorite things that Casey did was in Hollywood Week, when he was playing the standup bass and sang “Why Don’t You Do Right?” He did this harmony thing with his voice and the bass, and I said, “That’s what we need to put at the end of this song.” That whole thing he did at the end was something we came up with upstairs. He has a great ear. Literally, I play stuff on the piano, and he’s like, “No no no, make that a major seventh.” He hears everything.

LAUREN ALAINA — “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin)

MO: Somebody told her that Kelly Clarkson did [the song] on Season 1, and it was kind of in her head. She started watching it, and Kelly did that really high note. So we decided to give Lauren something else. We put a key change in it, and [track producer] Rodney Jerkins gave her that one big note to hold. Yesterday, all day, she was so scared of hitting [that note]. I said, “The note you’re scared of hitting, you’ve hit it before.” I think she was thinking about it too much. Today, after dress rehearsals, I made her march around the room and sing that note without thinking while waving her arms and jogging in place. She nailed it, and she did it tonight. She’s coming into her own. Before, I doubted if she was ready for all this just because of her age. There’s not a doubt in my mind now.

JAMES DURBIN — “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (The Beatles)

MO: He showed me a video on YouTube of his band doing [the song]. He’s done it for a long time, and that song is something really special to him. He knew he wanted to bring it down. He’s needed to, like Pia needed to go up. He needed to show that he knew how to do that, and it was really emotional for him. I love that we got to see that side of him, and that he could sit still and sing that on Rock Week when everyone was like, “This is going to be your week to belt it out and scream across the stage.” He didn’t, and I think it was a risk that paid off.

SCOTTY McCREERY — “That’s All Right” (Elvis Presley)

MO: I was nervous about him picking an Elvis song because he’s talked about being a huge Elvis fan before. Like we’ve already gone there. But instead of doing an Elvis impression, he did Scotty doing an Elvis song, which was really great. The arrangement he did on the stage tonight was the arrangement we first worked out on Friday.

The boy is finding his own style — the way he holds the mic and the way he moves. He was like moving his … everything! And [how he holds the mic] has become a thing with him. At first, I tried to break it. I thought it was because he was not comfortable onstage without his guitar. But it’s become how he performs now, and I dig it. I think people are going to start imitating him!

PIA TOSCANO — “River Deep — Mountain High” (Ike & Tina Turner)

MO: I felt there was too much pressure on her to perform this big, up-tempo number, like the whole country was waiting for it. But she did so well tonight. She did it three times this morning and then at dress rehearsal and then at the show, and every time she did it, she got more and more into it. She’s just got to let it go. That’s an age thing. When Carrie Underwood was on this show, she didn’t move like she moves today. Pia has got this unbelievable voice that can sing anything, and tonight she proved that she can walk around the stage. And yes, she can still work on it more. But I’m telling you, mark my words: Pia’s going to turn into an unbelievable performer by the time the show is over.

STEFANO LANGONE — “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge)

DB: [In regard to Randy Jackson calling his performance “jerky”] Stefano asked me about that after he performed. During dress rehearsal today, it was much jerkier. I mentioned it to him, and he smoothed it out. Before the show, we were upstairs and sang it at least five times. I said, “I need you to smooth it out and connect your notes.” That’s specifically what Randy meant. It’s a style — on some songs it works, and on other songs it does not. This was one of those songs [where] you have to alter your style, and be mindful of what the emotion of the song is. It’s not a jerky motion — it’s a very loving and fluid emotion.

What happened with Stefano was something I went through with Carrie Underwood and David Cook. I said, “Stefano, you sing very well, but I need more. You need to invest in your songs emotionally.” It’s very hard for some singers to let their guard down. It’s more of an emotional investment. And Carrie Underwood didn’t want to go to that [emotional] place, and I said, “If you don’t want to go there, the audience won’t go there either.” I know Stefano went there [tonight]. He broke through a wall.

PAUL McDONALD — “Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash)

DB: Last week’s song he had to learn [how to play it on guitar], but this week’s song he was more comfortable with. It’s not a hard song to play. A lot of people are more comfortable with their instrument than they are standing alone without it, and he’s probably one of those guys. One of the things he questioned was if the tempo was too fast. I remember Jimmy Iovine saying, “It’s got to be fast,” and Paul was doubting it. He asked Matt Rohde and I, “Do you think it’s too fast?” We said, “No, it’s very exciting the way it is.” And he’s like, “You sure?”

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